This Tuesday morning I sat down at the computer, as usual, with the hope of writing a couple of interesting articles.
I hadn’t had the best of mornings; It was cold, windy and I missed my bus (again...). I can’t control the weather so that shouldn’t have been a problem, and indeed on most days it isn’t.
I opened up my notebook and flicked through the pages to find last week’s notes, then opened a new file on WordPad. In most cases, I’ll start typing and all my thoughts will just flood out onto the screen, cascading into the parlance that form the basis of all my work.
This particular morning, though, my brain just wouldn’t focus on the job at hand. I placed my fingers on the keyboard, tried to write, and absolutely nothing happened. Less than nothing happened. I stared at the blank screen and could not, for the life of me, think of something to write.
I made a start to multiple different stories but re-reading them, they were mediocre at best. Writer’s block: It’s the bane of my life and many others.
Once it rears its ugly head it’s nearly impossible to write through the figurative brick wall stopping you from accessing any sort of word more complicated or impressive than ‘the’. Of course in this case, the only thing I could think to do was to write about the very problem stopping me from writing.
I should hardly need to explain what writer’s block is to anyone. I imagine we’ve all experienced a complete and utter lack of all literary inspiration and a dissipation of all writing ability at some point (so you can only imagine how long it took me to phrase that sentence, given that I’m struggling to think at the moment).
We all know roughly what the result of writer’s block is: It demolishes your ability to produce new work and prevents you from writing to your usual standard. For the most part, writer’s block stops you from ever being able to start your next piece. It can occur mid-way through a task, if you had a particular section already planned out in your head to the point where you knew exactly what you wanted to write and then no ideas for the consequent paragraph.
I have that problem all the time. More often than that, though, as I’ve said, writer’s block is a huge problem at the beginning of a new piece of writing. It also has a huge effect on your ability to form complex sentences, or even simple phrases that would otherwise take mere seconds to comprise. All of those symptoms combined into one condition make for a very unhappy author or journalist.
What you may not have previously realised is that it’s actually considered to be a condition, with varying intensities. Though I’ve only ever been stuck with it for a few days or so at most, some writers are trapped for years, and some have even had to leave the profession due to a perpetuating case of writer’s block.
It’s hard to believe that a simple lack of inspiration could hold somebody back for a few long years, which suggests that the problem runs deeper, psychologically, than you might expect.
Of course, there is every possibility that you may just lose interest and stop trying to think of new stories after a few weeks or months, allowing the condition to harbour in your mind for years, thus creating a very long-term problem. After all, it is very difficult to keep your writing fresh and interesting when you’ve been doing it for years. Most people, though, wouldn’t let a few days of writer’s block ruin the rest of their career, so there must be another causal factor.
Obviously lack of inspiration is one of the biggest killers. No idea what to write about, or no idea how to proceed in an original way with your idea? You’re a bit stuck, and you could be for quite a while. It takes a good bit of consideration to create an interesting piece of writing, and that requires much galvanized thought. You can cure this one fairly easily once you know how, though. A simple conversation with somebody could spark that excited, passionate part of your brain into life.
Many times have I come up to Market Harborough in the mornings with no idea what I’m going to write about, spoken to somebody on the way, and have been hit with inspiration based on nothing but that small exchange. If you’re not a morning person that probably isn’t the best idea (admittedly some of my angrier articles were due to my feeling simultaneously zealous and bitter), but something so much as listening to music or scanning through your Twitter feed for something a bit controversial could do the trick. If all else fails, just start writing gibberish until you chance upon something you’re interested in.
Another cause, I think, is quite prominent in my own work, personally, is making a strenuous effort to avoid being awful, predictable or otherwise too simple. Over-thinking anything is the cause of the majority of cases of anxiety, and in writing it’s a cause for writer’s block.
When you think too much about something, it’s guaranteed to go wrong. If you spend too much time at the beginning of a piece questioning how you can make it the very best article you’ve ever written, it won’t be.
You’ll be thinking too much about things you’ve already written and more than likely you’ll end up producing a regurgitated mess of past works. If you hang around, waiting for genius, your current skills go out of practice and your overall ability starts to wane, which means that stroke of genius you’re waiting for might never come by at all.
Every time you have an idea, if you jot something down or write even just a little bit about it, it’ll keep you on form and mean you’ll be able to write at your very best when you do have a ground-breaking idea. Trying too hard to avoid simplicity is a pitfall that I always get trapped in.
Long words are beautiful, but if people can’t understand them, a part of their impact is lost (not to mention nobody has a clue what your article is about).
So long as you aren’t forgetting apostrophes and using interrobangs (that’s what you’d call the use of both an exclamation mark and a question mark at any one time), or misspelling basic words such as ‘cat’, then I think you’re doing fine. You don’t need to try too hard to impress your peers or readers. So long as the piece is comprehensible and focuses on an interesting topic, people will enjoy it. Writing as yourself is the most important part of jumping over-thinking.
I write for myself, in a sense. Everything I write is about something I’m interested in or want to share, and I get some satisfaction from writing in depth about all of the subjects I’m looking to endeavour into further and from sharing any knowledge I might have of those topics.
Of course, another aspect of writing that appeals is having other people read and respond to your work. I feel a pinch of excitement every time I see somebody tweet one of my articles, and it makes me feel so proud when people recognise me from my photo on the Harborough Mail website (would you believe that’s happened before?). it gives you a purpose to write, other than just yourself, and it’s so fulfilling to know that what you’re producing is being well-received by an audience.
Any lack thereof usually leads to feeling inadequate or a loss of enjoyment in the art, particularly if you’re used to the attention. Feedback lets you know whether what you’re doing is good or bad, and this brings to mind the old cliché “All publicity is good publicity”. That’s true, in a sense, because I know most people would rather have some attention than none at all, even if it isn’t good. It shows that what they’re doing is causing a stir, and that’s satisfying.
In writing, you have to take the risk that sometimes, people might not like your work, or it may not be so popular as another article you’ve written in the past. That doesn’t mean you’ve lost ‘it’ and certainly shouldn’t discourage you. If you enjoy writing and you’re getting a response, keep doing it! Somebody’s bound to be reading it. Unless you really don’t know how to spell ‘cat’, then I probably wouldn’t suggest publishing...
Another cause of writer’s block could be mood. If you’re feeling rotten with man flu, or upset over emotional trauma, it’ll probably affect your writing.
It’s difficult to stop feelings from having an impact on the words you use or the subject matter of any given article you’re writing, or even what happens in your novel, if that’s what you’re writing. Those feelings don’t have to completely ruin your attitude towards writing, though.
Angry about something? Turn it into a story. The fact you’re emotionally involved with what you’re writing about will make it a million times better from the readers’ perspectives (and I swear that isn’t an exaggeration!).
Those infuriated exclamatives and declaratives make for an exciting read which more often than not inspires your audience. That’s what a good column should do. Don’t let your negative emotions interfere with your writing, but instead use them to shape your piece and make it more interesting.
That’s one of the things I always like to do. It’s cathartic to write an angry rant of an article about something that really irks you, and it’s more interesting for people to read afterwards. Emotionally-influenced writer’s block? Not anymore. I’d call it ‘inspiration’. That also solves the first problem of not knowing what to write.
A large proportion of writer’s block is just mentality, and you can change that. Physical health is actually important, too. It takes brain power to write an article, which means the brain requires energy. That, in turn, means you need to eat, sleep and drink enough. I’ve drifted in and out of caring about how long I can run before I collapse in a heap (currently it’s only about two miles), but during that time I picked up a phrase that can be applied to both physical and mental health: Muscles are ripped at the gym, fed in the kitchen and built in bed.
That could refer to the brain, if you imagine that the gym is your book or any other mentally stimulating task you might have. To write to your full potential, you need to be eating enough, to fuel your brain, and you need to be drinking enough to stay hydrated. Water is a hugely underrated resource. You can survive far longer with no food than you can with no water, and if you don’t drink enough I promise the quality of your writing will begin to dwindle.
That’s not to say that you have to be a body-builder to avoid writer’s block. I would never have started writing if it involved excessive amounts of exercise (I like chocolate too much for that), but it does mean that your writing will be far better if you keep yourself in fairly good health.
Those are probably the worst of the causes of writer’s block. Everybody’s different and with that I’m sure I’ll be correct in saying I haven’t covered every single possible cause in this article; These are just the problems I’ve always found to be the worst offenders.
There is one other piece of advice, which I’ve almost given away in the very nature of this piece. When I’m trying to beat a bad case of writer’s block, one of the things I always find most effective is just to start typing. Write anything that comes to mind and keep typing, even if it makes no sense and probably isn’t english.
Anything is better than nothing, and sometimes all it takes to break down the mental blockades stopping you from proceeding with your work is a bit of willpower. That’s exactly what I was doing when I started writing this.
Sat at the computer with no ideas and no words, I just started writing whatever came to mind. I thought it better to write about something that genuinely is a problem than to force something that didn’t want to happen.
If you’re having trouble starting a piece of writing, just write a few words. I have a little habit of writing “Well, I don’t know where to start, but...” at the beginning of everything I write, before I start the article, and it really helps me to focus on the subject.
Obviously I go back and change it once I’ve gotten into the flow of things, but it’s a good way of getting past that ‘I have no idea what to write’ feeling you can get stuck with at the start of a piece of writing.
This entire article has been an exercise in beating writer’s block, in essence. Indeed, the irony of writing an article complaining about writer’s block whilst being stricken with the very condition I’m writing about. I deleted three separate ideas before I decided on this one.
Has it worked? Marginally, I suppose. I have to say this is the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had in a while, and although I’m feeling a little more inspired than I did at the beginning, I’m still a bit stuck.
Maybe this just isn’t my day? I’d blame it on the amounts of chocolate I’ve eaten since my birthday. That said, it does show that you can write a half-decent article just by sitting down and forcing something out of your head, no matter how long it might take (and this did take a good while longer than it should have done).
Writer’s block is never going to disappear, unfortunately, which means that there is always going to be someone, somewhere, trying to meet an increasingly unrealistic deadline as they run their fingers desperately over their keyboard, searching for the right words.
It’s the worst feeling in the world as a writer, but it comes with the job. That doesn’t in any way oust us of the right to whinge about it on occasion, though.
Just because we should be used to it by now and should be able to cope does not make it any less annoying!
Column by Ruby Hryniszak
Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.